So You Want to Backup Your Aerial Footage Taken from Drones?

Photographer and National Geographic Expert Kike Calvo Photographer and National Geographic Expert Kike Calvo with one of his aerial platforms. Photo © Nano Calvo

This post is the latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series,  which profiles interesting information, thoughts and research into using  drones, UAVs or remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography, that Kike learns about during his travels. Featured photo © Nano Calvo

Those of us who are flying small unmanned aerial vehicles, whether for work or for fun, have started producing thousands of megabytes of information. It is a scary thought that your unique aerial footage might get lost after a computer crash, a robbery or your little cousin spilling a glass of water on your only external hard drive.

Having a secure, redundant, up-to-date backup system is essential for any professional. Whether you are capturing videos using an AR.Drone, a GoPro Camera installed on a Phantom or a reflex camera on a more complex aerial platform like the  S1000, the following strategies may help you safely preserve the huge media files you are generating on every flight.

Basic backup strategies for aerial photographers using unmanned vehicles:

  1. Before you go out and fly, especially before you go on that wonderful trip to a hard to reach tropical destination to fly around, sit down and plan your system. Take a piece of paper and make a diagram of how it will actually work. Think of the entire production cycle from pre-flight check-ups and camera settings to the after flight home downloading process.
  2. A backup system is not such, unless there is redundancy. One external hard drive plus your computer´s internal hard drive is not a safe system. All hard drives may eventually fail, so follow the rule of three. Backing up in at least three hard drives is a good idea.
  3. If you are going to trust the hard drive technology to hold your very valuable and non-replaceable files, the least you can do is learning as much as possible about the brands and companies creating the products. In no time your hard drive will hold thousands of files. You need a reliable brand.
  4. As a perfect combination with your office back ups on conventional hard drives, I suggest exploring having a cloud security copy for, at least, your most important files. To handle my photography system I have been trusting for years a company called Photoshelter. This allows me to have access to  your images from virtually anywhere at at anytime.

You have heard many stories about what happens to people who don’t back up periodically. Here is mine. I decided to start a real, serious backup system the hard way.  On arrival from an expedition, I had two cars follow me home all the way from the airport. All my gear, my cameras, memory cards, hard drives and computer were stolen. I lost weeks of hard work including amazing footage of humpback whale behavior.  Reflecting on that devastating situation, plus several previous sudden unexpected computer crashes, I decided to explore a backup system that would be efficient for someone like me who is constantly on the go. I started to design an ideal system that would grow in an organized manner along with my ever-growing data storage needs.

Photographer and National Geographic Expert Kike Calvo performing a pre-flight check on his rig. Photo © Nano Calvo

Six things everyone should know about safe handling of your files:

California-based entrepreneur, Tom Burns, handles the majority of data maintenance and storage for Burnz Eye View, a company that specializes in creating emotionally-engaging theatrical video trailers and aerial images of luxury real estate. Burns shared with me some key lessons, which probably -like for most of us- he learned the hard way.

  1. Having multiple data storage devices (i.e. external HD and microSD) plugged into the computer can generate issues with reading/writing to the drives, mounting/unmounting, and overall performance of any iMac. Be careful to minimize the number of devices a computer communicates with at a time.
  2. Place numbers (via a label maker) on your SD cards. This helps determine which cards have been used especially when possessing multiple cards of the same capacity from the same brand.
  3. Convert footage to desired Codec immediately (Atomos Ninja is removing this need). Give yourself access to the editing process as quickly as possible.
  4. GoPro metadata can create issues with image name when posting online (at least to our WordPress website). Consequently, we erase the Meta Data and then rename the footage with the format: Location.## using an iOS automator Workflow. We do this to the files while still on the microSD card to ensure 1) easily identify footage on SD card and 2) files will be appropriately named when copied to external hard drive (and all subsequent file transfers).
  5. Help yourself by having several SD cards. Our goal is to only delete/format an SD card when projects using the saved footage are complete.
  6. GoPros don’t like sharing SD cards. We have two GoPro cameras (Hero 3 Black and Hero 3+ Black). The cameras struggle to write to the cards if shared between cameras. Consequently, we have dedicated microSD cards per camera on each shoot. If recording repeatedly stops within 20 seconds, format the microSD (but only after copying data on card to another source.)

Backing up:

When it comes to backup information, I decided to talk to David Zimmerman, founder of LC Technology International. Since founding the company in 1997, Zimmerman has built LC into one of the premier sources for Windows and Mac based file and data recovery solutions as well as security and performance-based utilities in the industry today.

“Everyone should know that while hard drives are very reliable and stable to use, as with all mechanical devices, they can and do wear out,” said Zimmerman. “We have had hard drives running here in the office for more than ten years, but we have seen brand new drives fail within six months.” Hard drives are very fragile and susceptible to problems if not handled properly. “External hard drives in particular should be handled with care, knocking it over on a desk or off of the desk onto the floor are sure ways to lose a drive,” said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman explains that there are a number of reasons why hard drives fail. From manufacturing defects, physical trauma, environmental issues like extreme heat, power related issues like surges to sudden power loss, hard drives can just stop working all of the sudden. In addition, there is a possibility that some of the moving parts actually just wear out over time.

“Typically I have my systems set up in a RAID 1, two disks mirrored,” said Zimmerman.  “If you have the room and don’t mind the cost, RAID 10 is by far the safest as you have a minimum of 4 drives mirrored – 2 RAID 1s mirrored.”

Typical workflow for a professional photographer or aerial videographer:

Finally, let’s look at a typical workflow for a professional photographer or aerial videographer. Let’s use as an example how Tom Burns organizes data maintenance and storage for his company, Burnz Eye View.

  • Transfer to Computer & Hard Drive:
    . Immediately rename footage on cards to maintain name continuity in all locations.
    . Transfer MP4 files from GoPro(s), ProRes files, and .MOV (when not using Atomos) to “New Project” Folder
    on Seagate 3TB External Hard Drive. Subfolders for Images (All & Keeper) and Video (Original & ProRes.)
    . Begin Conversion of Video Footage using Aiseesoft HD Converter for Mac  to ProRes 422 (LT) (.mov); created in
    “ProRes” Folder on external hard drive.
  • Editing:
    . Import ProRes files into Final Cut Pro X.
    . During editing, original footage is kept on microSD & SD cards, copies and ProRes files are stored as mentioned above.
    . Throughout the whole process Time Machine Backups are created on  iMac , in the event data is corrupted or needs recovery.

Often times my readers from  Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series ask about my personal back up system. I am outlining the details of my back up gear as well as my aerial rig:

Kike´s Back Up System: 

Kike´s Aerial Rig:

Fully upgraded DJI P2+H3-2D Phantom 2 Quadcopter with Zenmuse H3-2D Gimbal by DSLRPros.

  • Futaba Control Radio
  • Carbon Fiber Propellers
  • Anti Gravity Motors
  • First Person View SystemSoon I will be testing 5.4mm and 8mm rectilinear Go Pro flat lenses from Rage Cams.

Backup Aerial Platforms: 

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Learn More About Back Up Systems:

Information Storage and Management: Storing, Managing, and Protecting Digital Information in Classic, Virtualized, and Cloud Environments

Digital Photo Workflow Made Easy: Discover how to effortlessly organise and process all your pictures

Simple Computer Transfer and Backup: Don’t Lose your Music and Photos

Data Protection for Photographers: A Guide to Storing and Protecting Your Valuable Digital Assets

The Digital Photography Workflow Handbook

Thousands of Images, Now What: Painlessly Organize, Save, and Back Up Your Digital Photos

Systems Performance: Enterprise and the Cloud

Digital Shoebox: How to Organize, Find, and Share Your Photos

Learn More About Drones:

Kike Calvo´s Drone Collections 

Drone / UAV Dictionary: Includes 300 Commercial UAV Applications

Drones: Their Many Civilian Uses and the U.S. Laws Surrounding Them.

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Drone Entrepreneurship: 30 Businesses You Can Start

Small Unmanned Aircraft: Theory and Practice

Introduction to Unmanned Systems: Air, Ground, Sea & Space

UAV Fundamentals Executive Course

How to Start an Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV) Business Course on DVD

Small UAV Construction

Getting Started with Hobby Quadcopters and Drones: Learn about, buy and fly these amazing aerial vehicles

Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Drone Pilot (Cool Careers)

Fly by Wire Aircraft: Fighters, Drones, and Airliners

Introduction to Remote Sensing, Fifth Edition